Chessmen and Chess Author(s): Charles K.

Wilkinson Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, Vol. 1, No. 9 (May, 1943), pp. 271-279 Published by: The Metropolitan Museum of Art Stable URL: . Accessed: 27/08/2011 19:59
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and tells how the Hindu played for high stakes. He remarks that the chief use of ivory in India was for the manufacture of chess and backgammon pieces. for stuffs and jewels. who are known by name and who were renowned both for their playing and for treatises on the game. or similar to. also credits India with the invention of the game. who in company merely stare at each other like cattle. cauterizing the wound with this ointment. are recorded as saying. this tragedy being shown to her in miniature on the chessboard. which is a mixture peculiar to India and extraordinarily effective. elbow. He relates in the Shdhnimeh that chess was invented as a means of breaking to the mother of King Gav. however. The great Persian poet Firdausi." Like earlier writers he asserts that the game was introduced into Persia from India. writing in the eleventh century and using material from. who acquired the game by their conquest of Persia. for making math- emlatical calculations. He tells us of the various uses of the chessboard: how it served for studying the strategy of war. along with Kalileh shirwan and Dimneh. There was a certain amount of opposition to this new pastime. They had produced famous masters by the early tenth century. the Book of Chess. whence it spread both east and west. for very few of such antiquity have survived although the game was widely spread at that time. but by the Persians themselves. WILKINSON Chess has been played for more than a millennium in the Near East. 271 . forearm. chess had been known in Persia for two or three centuries. who themselves could not resist it and even played Indian variations of the game. an Indian king. Mascudi goes on to say. Talhend. and it has been our good fortune to find a dozen carved ivory chessmen in a house of the early ninth century in Nishapur. not even stopping when he had lost the proverbial shirt. dast-i-khin (the hand of blood) are used for the last move at chess. The story ends with the ex1It is interesting to note that the Persian words. in battle with his brother.l Iff rHrt1 r? "41 t l I ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ ~ AAAAAAA CHESSMEN Senior Research Fellow. The Arabs were fascinated by chess. and the people of Medina. the Chatrang-nimak. but in India.' The custom of which I have spoken is a notorious fact. 531-579). an earlier Pahlavi manuscript.a tenth-century Arab writer. The invention of the game is ascribed to India not only by the Arabs.D. and even as an allegory of the celestial spheres. and to no small extent its introduction into Europe was due to them. When they were made. AND Departlment CHESS of Near Eastern Art BY CHARLES K. "When they play they have near them a cauldron of reddish ointment and the players wager fingers. the loss of her other son. during the reign of Nu(Khusrau I. These pieces are valuable. or for a game in which the vanquished party stakes his limbs. gives us many details of the game as it was played in India and elsewhere. A." MasCudi. however. "Chess is only meant for the barbarians. It did not originate there. or other parts of their body. a fa- mous book of fables.

) Buzurgmihr demonstrating the moves of chess to the Hindu envoy in the presence of Shah Nushirwan traordinary picture of the bereaved woman. aided somewhat by the indiscretions of the envoy. .li k1^^ ?l I?'9!. It Ivrs *r ?if" fAc .T3 ?r =? rj" lZ I? ?i . Unlike Firdausi. Another page from the same manuscript shows this game being explained to the rajah and his court by Buzurgmihr.4 ir . but several early writers 272 ..? -?llr:JI .p? _..r I r.M '?rC ": 7?cliT. The envoy is sitting at the left of the chessboard in "the palace which seemed all throne.4 1!0 c'" c--. i3r"'. The association of chess with the strategy of war has always been an extremely common poetical metaphor. In the Shahndmeh both games represented a battlefield and were very much alike. This scene is shown in a fine miniature of the fourteenth century in the Museum (illustrated above).t (.. most early writers state that backgammon is older than chess. the Persian counselor.I tr J ol 4 oc ?Zi'r?? ' 3'?. ? -i? '?-.v ?-? .-?-"'I Lr L.j.)Jcs:.. which the Persians in their turn presented to the Indians to solve.'' r.^U^: i. a feat which they could not accomplish.)-. and spending all her time playing chess until the end of her days. ?"^* .i Q.3lr . ii rrr? r ?----??. kLSljl ?.t ) II???I L*." The text under the picture then goes on to describe how Buzurgmihr invented the game of nard (backgammon).?ll\s :J c .? I? .5L_tV .c? ?-.r -C tSt. . who is again seen sitting at the right of the board (see opposite page).? iiv .I? ?t r? `" ?Jr ir I .IZ "' t.1.4. racked with'?I. neither eating nor drinking.r--51 rl? Y t)i. .*4( r.-.: tc r ??t-r 1 i.51y -?ii I' -' pS: . the important difference being in the arrangement of the board and the use of dice.. Somewhat earlier in this long poem we have another lengthy description of chess.e h. .r ?r Aurl r 'tl 1?1r J!. solved the problem within a week. I c~" t sSi . (??I? ?? -vJr ??.. and the throne all shah. . ?(.r:s c ?I? r.(-z .?? a? ?I ?? c:. . (5L~~J))I0A J -ir r3crerr= 41 tz" II -1?5 *'r 11-41 L: r .b l... -. described as being made of ivory with spots of teakwood. j: ''. in which Buzurgmihr explains the chessmen and their moves to the envoy in the presence of the shah. IJ Ir-:I'7fd It) ft ?) i 1.1.jr:-f j? ( 4 i i '4 .? 44 2j1 . -?- t I1 rPd (Li I? ?':2. Buzurgmihr. 1 .r r. where we read that the Indian rajah sent an envoy to Shah Nushirwan with a set of chess and a message written on silk to say that unless the Persians could name the pieces and work out their moves he would cease to pay tribute.. ?iijiatS' Yr: lr r ?? .. J?ilil) Pe.

. ' .~~~~~~~~~~~~.~~~~~~~/.o t}. too. the horsemen.' >. .. ? .. . their character. any relation with these four groups may seem farfetched. d:'!. This native meaning was gradually substituted for that of the imported word.. d. .'. r ."" i- -* '' *?**** ^ 'R . ?--. I i A tS *JJvEw. : '.. will show that it is not so fantastic as appears at first sight. and the character of the chess piece as a symbol was thus affected and changed. 394xl- lcl v tI AL !~P .. a study of how some of their original names. . its symbolic meaning was entirely lost. the piece was given a new name.-. ?a+ . . the elephants.. However. .L '"*" 'fi^ 'T^ i.i i . a word used not only for chess but for the "four arms" of the army-the chariots. ...1^11 . ' ." C -a??' . ....s. . . ..^J^J^} ..and Persianspeaking countries is shatrang. r II^I~LJ^J?^1?I _. .i ?--?--L_1 L.* i i. all of which are represented among the chessmen. and the infantry... : . Such a taking over often necessitated a change of pronunciation in order that the word might be more easily spoken. I) A Buzurgmihr showing the Hindu rajah how to play the game of backgammon maintain that chess actually was used as an exercise in martial science. which comes from the Sanskrit chaturanga. . ~ . .t i.IU: . ' . l. When... The word by which chess is now known in Arabic. Confusion has been caused. suggested by its shape or the character of its move. When one looks at chess pieces as they now are and considers their English names.9. II I : h3?j~~~I A. ' ~ " '. The fate of the piece known in English as 273 . however. *jl A %. In some cases the word so borrowed and mispronounced corresponded with one that already existed in the language but that had an entirely different meaning.y *'6 ' !. MoLWtgt)BX>J !s A<kpu/> JJ^^J^^jj .~ o J^^^*^^1~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ .. t t )VrYt' ffi<. This is a corruption of the Pahlavi word chatrang. In this way.yAW^&. not by the translation of names from one language into another. a process which has preserved the original meaning. and even sex have been changed in their long journey from Hindustan to the West. the adopted and transformed name did not match any existing word and was meaningless except as the name of a chessman. .. but by the adoption of strange words from foreign tongues. : ... ..... .. .

the word was corrupted in Persia to rukh. the piece was called a bishop in England. who have great difficulty in pronouncing the letter P. In early times. probably that in all three languages the original sig. Originally the "elephant. the name of the powerful and fabulous bird which we all know as the roc in the Arabian Nights. alfin. These projections took many forms and. Actual size the bishop gives a very good idea of these changes." it was called by the Persians pil and by the Arabs. . In France it p. when the piece was not a true representation of the animal. The left-hand piece of the middle row is stained green. perhaps a distorted survival of the elephant's tusks (see above). because a resemblance to a mitre was seen.IX century ivory chessmen from Nishapur. and our word rook is merely a mispronunciation of rukhkh.owing to the fact that in a Hindu version of nificance was lost. the definite article al being unwittingly included. al fil. 277). chariot. It was represented in early sets by a rather thin piece marked with a deep cleft in the middle (see above). In Europe this was modified to alphinus. Great confusion has taken place bebecame a fou and in Germany a Ldufer. it was characterized by two projections from the top. and in the thirteenth century in Europe it sometimes resembled a sort of tower with two projections from the top (see ill. so tween the rook and the bishop. or aufin. The Arabs hardly changed this word. chess the elephant (bishop) occupied the cor274 The chariot (rook) lost its identity even earlier in its journey to the West. From the original Sanskrit ratha.

including English. the functions of a vizier not being unpoem entitled Ludus scachorum. eral languages. but by the twelfth censixteenth century the Italian Vida. the footsoldiers. and as such he was known by the queen." recently destroyed. this piece was known as fers in England lated into king. "the Elephant and were then as now the simplest and the and Castle. went by the name of shah in name and character but also its sex is the Persia. In Persian called the firzin. The king. Europe. whom The piece that has changed not only its they protected. This book was translated into sev. as is name of Springer from the nature of its move. as the name of a The pawns were the infantry. but in two other ways this 275 . but in Germany. or coun. have been introduced into England in 1562. although repreThe tower has survived as a chess piece. the castle may a horse in the Near East and a horseman in way.XI century crystal chessmen in the Behague collection. in a Latin tury. well known to all Cockneys. described the derstood in Europe. public house in South London. In Europe the word was literally transselor.Arabs." 1/2 actual size from Lamm's ner square instead of the chariot. the piece goes by the combined form as a heraldic device and.symbolic of a queen. the sented by a horse's head. In the in the Middle Ages. Alexander Neckham in rook as a fortified tower on the back of an writing on chess (De Scachis) made the piece elephant. smallest pieces on the board. and in this The knight has always been associated with as Macdonell suggests. Rearranged "Mittelalterliche Glaser.

In Egypt. Our chessmen. and most of them are in excellent condition. Many other materials were used for early pieces. The knight has approximately the form of a horse. Only in the case of the pawns and the knight would a modern chessplayer have reasonable success in identifying the pieces. Our pieces are good evidence that conventional shapes were adopted early in the history of the game in the countries of Islam. is reduced to a piece of ivory with a silhouette vaguely suggesting the animal. could only move one square at a time and was less powerful than the rook. in the Arab Museum. 274) is obviously from another set. Al Biruni. It is possible that the red glass noted by 2 In the treasury of the Norman kings of England accounts were kept with counters on a cloth divided into squares. Published in Orbelli's book Shatrang). tells us that in one version of the game it could move one square either straight on or to any of the adjoining diagonal squares. a Saracennamed Buzeccaplayed three games simultaneously. a queen. The knight's leap has remained constant but others have now greatly increased powers. The elephant (bishop). They are carved in a very conventional fashion and to our eyes are somewhat obscure symbols of the figures they are meant to represent. Of the dozen found. belonged to this second set also. as a vizier. one over the board and the other two without looking. unlike the magnificent ivory specimen in the Bargello3 (see p. both of which were easily obtained in India and were readily distinguishable. though simple. The game of chess in mediaeval Latin was ludus scachorum. or kings. The queen. In 1266 in the presence of the Podesta.word shiah. on p. and instead of tusks there are two small projections from the top of the "head. The bishop (the elephant) has had several moves but was more restricted in its range. and it is possible that one of the adjoining pieces. 279. there are several of colored glass (see p. one rook (bottom right of ill. but it must be pointed out that this order is not invariable in the East. 276 . The king is represented by what may be a throne. the counselor (queen) by another considerably thinner than that of his master. and thus the English cheque and the American check. and twelfth centuries. and the carved pieces by different decoration or metal settings. relates how the building known today as the Bargello was the scene of an early feat of skill in chess. one set being dark green. a paper token for money." The chariot (rook) has a deep cleft that was the distinguishing mark of this piece for several centuries. is still employed. In the Shahndmeh the chessmen are described as being of ivory and teakwood. 275). and from these we have the words check and checkmate. Lamm in his Mittelalterliche Gliser on the bases of some of the crystal pieces shown on page 275 might have served this purpose. Drawings of these chessmen have been set out in the usual order at the head of this article. made perhaps in the tenth century. crystal and carnelian. an eleventh-century visitor to India. Owing to this we have the word exchequer. 278)." The two opposing groups of our ivory chessmen were distinguished by their color. except for the knight. in his Tratto dell' origine di Firenze (1559). plain pieces being distinguished by material and color. The plain and decorated chessmen probably belonged to entirely different sets. are of nicely cut ivory. which was usually represented in Near Eastern sets by a tallish piece with a single projection near the top. for instance. Unlike the famous crystal pieces at Osna3Giovanni Villani. The term Shah! is used in Persian and Arabic when the king is threatened and Shah mat! (the king is dead) when the king cannot be moved. the game of shahs.2 The moves of most of the pieces have undergone considerable change. Murray's suggestion in his History of Chess that the pieces of one side were decorated and the opposing men left plain seems most unlikely. these representing the "elephant's trunk and four legs. and at the same time and later very fine ones were made of crystal and often elaborately decorated (see p. 279). Count Guido Novello. eleventh. bear witness to the far-reaching influence of chess. hardly recognizable. and chess is nothing but shah by the way of the Latin and the old French esches. yet how much more realistic is the very fine ivory knight of the eighth or ninth century from Samarkand now in the Hermitage (see p. These shapes were very common for chessmen of the tenth.

From the MSS. from Ager in Catalonia (see page 275). legend has it. the scene evoking the memory of war though no blood was 277 . were a present from Harun ar Rashid to Charlemagne and which had formerly been dated by that legend at the end of the eighth century or the beginning of the ninth and latterly by "style" in the tenth century. for more sumptuous sets. It is also evident that chessmen were made in the Near East in these curious forms to comply with the religious prohibition against the representation of living creatures. the early Abbasids in Mesopotamia.c t rCfkr (trt e i .Two 'slims pag 60on uttw tXit*?**^M?. emsrelntrL tttC4tl o tfa*tl ^WAn. act .- .O^ *I94IllCtVW4 V ?t' . No trace of any board was discovered in the excavations at Nishapur. It might easily be assumed that the reason for making chessmen of such conventional and simplified shapes was merely one of economy. and the Fatimids in Egypt did not always obey this law. / / U i / / 3. describes how two loyal friends played chess with a red leather chessboard between them. others more elaborate and naturalistic were made. / . by which he left his Eastern pieces to the convent of Saint Giles. in an Arabic poem. and we are entirely dependent on literary and pictorial references for information about chessboards.-. Because of this it is now possible that some of the "Charlemagne" set of Osnabriick (see p. of Alfonso the WVise (1283) in the Escorial briick. // / "' -7. / - i . ?U <ttmbl4mCtew. But the finely carved crystal conventional pieces in the Behague collection. we can date our chessmen in the early ninth century by associated finds. Mas(udi. t of otnmr t41 ta *^ Alfol he vlsol of Al1 44tMtfV -vv the Mtt ?I?l Pe. We know that the Persians. 278) are at least as old as the ninth century. and that. But there was always opposition to freedom of representation. which. . These would seem to have sometimes been made of pliable material such as cloth or leather..x Y%tf v"64U .r I tt' t frit +i ise (28) Escorial^ in the Two Mutslimsplaying chess.n :.ttwt?? ttewws. like the elephant in the Bargello and the knight from Samarkand. and some chess players were undoubtedly quite orthodox and preferred to enjoy themselves without contravening the religious law. and several fine chess pieces bear witness to that. dispose of this assumption.. one drawn up in camp before battle) of the Count of Urgel in Catalonia in the first decade of the eleventh century. That such crystal pieces were considered valuable is evident from the castrensian will (that is.^l?? ch MLLSS.

on bottom the Reproduced row." by Fritz Witte. Reproduced from Lamm's "Mittelalterliche Glaser. Cairo. Reproduced from "Der Domschdtz zu Osnabriick. About 3/4 actual size . Glass chessmen in the Arab Museum." About 3/4 actual size Some of the so-called Charlemagne crystal chessnen. Two typical Near Eastern knights are shown on the bottom row.

There was an important difi0( ference between the early Arab !i i and Persian board and that urope. as well they might when we hear that at the very beginning of the eleventh century Mathilda. Bishop of Ostra. but by Muslims to Christians. but that did not prevent him from making the observation that chess and politeness did not go well together. was "won" as the result of a chess match between Ezzo. But in the contemporary manuscripts of Alfonso the Wise the boards are checkered. just as in Europe a century or two later there are legends and writings to show that it was a pastime of kings.. and the warriors engaged in combat without the sound of trumpets or the waving of banners. and in the same century Cardinal Damianus. which was almost entirely a game of chance. This can be seen very clearly evenl in the fourteenth-century paintings in the Shihnrmeh (see p. the Count Palatine. Sets of chess. not only in Europe. diffictulties with the Church arose. There were. Chess has survived all these onslaughts and has undergone remarkably few changes considering that it has existed for some fourteen hundred years. the player must refrain from improper language. a lingua franca between the civilizations of the East and West. In Europe. . one of the greatest of the orthodox divines. and we also know that Louis IX received one of crystal and gold from the Old Man of the Mountains. we read of one with a hundred squares. many variants of this form. We have the legend of such a gift to Charlemagne from Harun ar Rashid. There was much heated theological controversy about chess and Ash Shafici. too. fin in the former there was no distinction in the color of the squares. daughter of Otto II. for used Europe. there were many Muslims who objected not only to backgammon.sought. sure lawfulness: the game must not be played for a stake nor allowed to interfere with prayer. 279 ." Even in the thirteenth century a board with twelve squares to a side was known in Spain. and clergy. often of great value. called skilled players to his court. courts. even though Arabs are shown playing. laid down conditions that had to be fulfilled to en. and her brother. the last of Hassan Sabbah's line to reign in the famous castle of the "Assassins" at Alamut before they were swept away by the Mongols. Otto III. where chess was often played for stakes. In the early game. In spite of such high patronage. Oblong and circular boards are also mentioned by Mlascudi. necessitating the use of "camels" as well as the "horses" and "elephants. wrote to reprove a bishop for sporting away his evenings with the vanity of chess and so defiling with the pollution of a sacrilegious game the hand which offered up the body of the Lord. however. 272). The chess problems in the very fine Florentine manuscript of the thirteenth century known as the Bonus socius are accompanied by drawings in which all the squares are white and the names of the pieces written in black and red. however. Ma'mun. the board was usually divided into sixty-four squares. as played in the Near East. but to -::: :: i:chess also. eight to a side. and the game must not be played in the street or in any public place. for both games were played for stakes. There are many references to show that chess was very popular with the early caliphs and the court. a caliph of the early ninth century. were given as presents between rulers and persons in high places. as can be seen on page 277. The clergy themselves were susceptible to the fascination of the game. although it was considered a more intellectual pastime.

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